First time in Japan
August 23, 2009 5:37 PM   Subscribe

Two weeks in Japan (first time)... suggestions?

I'm getting good recommendations from this post, but am also looking for any general tips and advice. Some details:
- I'm traveling with a friend, so nothing romantic.
- We're going the 2nd + 3rd weeks of November, in case there is anything timely.
- We're both pretty adventurous.
- I'm a lazy planner so any suggested itineraries are welcome.
- What should we plan on spending on daily accomodation, ballpark? (I know it is expensive)
- if you've been, what stands out as the highlight and lowpoint of your trip?

I'm counting on the "just go and absorb" strategy for most of it.

Thanks for your help!
posted by cgs to Travel & Transportation around Japan (22 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Whereabouts in Japan? I found the two places I had the most fun just wandering around near Tokyo were Harajuku and Akihabara.

Harajuku is more touristy, from what I saw, with lots of kids dressing up in interesting costumes, street performers, and is very close to the Meiji Shrine, which is like an oasis in the middle of the busy city.

Akihabara is the "Electric City," where there are tons of electronics on sale for crazy-low prices. It's bright and shiny and a little overwhelming.

If you're feeling like playing like the super-rich, hit the Ginza area. Expensive stores, wide streets and lots of things to see.

I got everywhere in Tokyo on the subway. It's not that hard to figure out (I found New York to be more intimidating), very clean, and though it's crowded during rush hours, it's not too bad if you go in later mornings or earlier afternoons.
posted by xingcat at 5:49 PM on August 23, 2009

You'll be there during what it typically the peak (or approaching the peak) of the autumn color season in Kyoto and vicinity. I'd be sure to take advantage of that.
posted by jal0021 at 6:12 PM on August 23, 2009

I'm counting on the "just go and absorb" strategy for most of it.

I only know Tokyo very well, so for there I say: This strategy will work well. Get on the subway and go to a new neighborhood, then wander around until you're tired of it, then repeat. Tokyo's neighborhoods have huge variety: for example, the business districts are very interesting on weekdays but not on weekends. Others, like Harajuku, are only really fascinating on one day each week (Sundays, in that case).

It may seem like a strange suggestion, but I'd also be sure to do Tsukiji very early one morning (like 5am), because that is quite an amazing place. Perhaps easiest if you don't sleep the night before.

And if you are a cooking person at all, Kappabashi-dougugai Dori is sort of required for an afternoon's worth of shopping for unusual (and cheap, and high quality) kitchen ware.
posted by rokusan at 6:28 PM on August 23, 2009

Kappabashi-dougugai Dori is sort of required for an afternoon's worth of shopping for unusual (and cheap, and high quality) kitchen ware.

Kappabashi is also where you can find fake food, which are fun to look at and great as souvenirs.
posted by misozaki at 6:38 PM on August 23, 2009

but I'd also be sure to do Tsukiji very early one morning (like 5am), because that is quite an amazing place. Perhaps easiest if you don't sleep the night before.

I never went to the Tsukiji fish market since I thought it was dumb touring somebody's workplace.

Now, /eating/ at Tsukiji is a good thing.

The foliage in Kyoto is indeed awesome in late November, unfortunately half the nation comes to see it so travelling is more of an adventure then.

Akihabara is the "Electric City," where there are tons of electronics on sale for crazy-low prices

Akihabara isn't the discount district! My favorite shopping district is Ameyoko, which starts about 15 minutes north of Akihabara station and runs to Ueno, a good kilometer of random stores, giving you a last look of what 20th century Tokyo was like before the wealth effect of being the #2 economy in the world transformed the city into.

Accommodation ranges from $50 on the low side to $100/night on the high-ish side. It's much easier booking over the internet now so I recommend doing that for at least your Tokyo stay(s). I'd just pick a ryokan in Tokyo for that. Good luck!

Two weeks is kinda long to run around Tokyo so you might want to look at a 1 week Japan Rail Pass. This will get you to Kyoto at least and should pay for itself just for that. So 3 days in Tokyo, 4 days in Kyoto with day trips to Osaka, Himeji, and maybe Hiroshima (it's a 3 hour shinkansen ride from Kyoto so that'll kill a day that might better be spent exploring Kyoto).

The entire northern half of Kyoto has lots of cool stuff to walk about and through and is my favorite experience of Japan.

Japan will start getting nippy in mid-November especially at night so dress on the warmish side.

Spending a night down in Shimoda on the Izu Peninsula might be nice since that area is quite scenic for Japan. You should be able to cut over from Numazu on the way back from Tokyo and then bus down to Shimoda. Shimoda is ~2hrs south of Atami, and Atami is an hour by Shinkansen from Tokyo station so that would be a nice coast crawl to get back into Tokyo and check in that night. You might even want to extend over to Kamakura if you have the time, there's lots of historical stuff there, and Enoshima area is also very nice in November.
posted by @troy at 7:19 PM on August 23, 2009

Check out the Japanese National Tourist Office webpage for hints.

I would take advantage of a JR Pass if you want to venture outside of Tokyo. And there is a lot to see outside of Tokyo! I've never been north of Tokyo, so I can't tell you much about it, but to the southwest, here are 3 places I've been and enjoyed:

1)Miyajima. Near Hiroshima, it's an island just off the coast with a famous shrine and some little old-style shopping streets and a bunch of other temples and a ropeway. And that famous torii gate out in the water. Go first thing in the morning, it'll take from 3 to 7 hours to wander around depending on your proclivity for climbing mountains.
2)Tsuwano. Take the train from Yamaguchi (about an hour if you take the express). Probably only worth about 4 hours of going around, so make it a day trip. Paper factories, a nice shrine, old-style houses to visit and wander around.
3)Himeji Castle. Faithfully reconstructed castle. No elevators (as in Osaka Castle). Not terribly much to do there apart from the castle, make it a side trip from Osaka. Nara is also a good side trip from Osaka.

The problem with getting further away from Tokyo is that your nightlife chances will also decrease. I'm not a huge nightlife person, so I can't recommend much in terms of that anyway.

Most hotels in Japan tend to be have per-person per-night rates, which can range from ¥2500 to ¥30000+. You'll most likely be able to find things in the ¥3000-5000 range anywhere you go, though. The expensive places will be the ryokan-style places with million-course set dinners and breakfasts, personal baths etc. The cheaper places will be hostels and business hotels with normal beds that can be varying degrees of slightly dingy. A lot of the touristy sights tend to have hours of 9am to 5pm, so I would recommend doing travel in the evening after dinner, getting to the hotel in the new place and going to the sights in the morning. Most train stations will have lockers you can spend ¥300-500 on to hold your stuff for the day, and also most hotels will be nice to hold on to your stuff, even after you check out. Most places in Japan aren't worth more than a night's stay. Tokyo and Kyoto are probably the exceptions to this, possibly Osaka if you do use it as a starting point for a lot of day trips.

Kyushu is wonderful and probably the weather is fine that time of year, but it takes some time to get around in because the trains aren't as fast. Dazaifu Temple, Nagasaki (Glover Garden, Dejima, Atomic Bomb Memorial), Aso Caldera, Sakurajima are all nice places to see, but since getting from one to another can take 2-4 hours, you'd probably need to spend more time there than is particularly feasible. Fukuoka is a big city that I am particularly fond of, but really only good if you like shopping, without all of the little cultures that Tokyo seems to have.

For an itinerary, I'd start off with a few days in Tokyo to get over jetlag and see the all the various things there, then take the train down to Hiroshima/Miyajima and work my way back up, stopping in Osaka for a few days taking side trips to Nara and Himeji (maybe stopping in Himeji on the way from Hiroshima), then to Kyoto for a couple few days, and then maybe through Tokyo further north. Not that I know what's up there.
posted by that girl at 7:20 PM on August 23, 2009

Also, if you buy stuff you might find mailing it back via EMS post to be viable. Costs $30-40 per package but is super-reliable and you avoid the customs hassle for the stuff you send.

Further notes: for my money the thing Japan does best is the Convenience Store. Whenever I see an am/pm sign here in the states I cry a little since am/pm in Japan is simply wall-to-wall chock-full of yummy treats. Lawson, Family Mart are similarly good (but am/pm is the best).
posted by @troy at 7:26 PM on August 23, 2009

Himeji Castle. Faithfully reconstructed castle

No, that's one of the few original issues. Also checking out Inuyama castle, an hour or so north of Nagoya is cool since it dominates the Nagano plain on a hillock.
posted by @troy at 7:27 PM on August 23, 2009

Nagano Nagoya plain
posted by @troy at 7:29 PM on August 23, 2009

Spend a few days in Kyoto. It's a stunningly beautiful city. Book ahead online for the various imperial palaces there. (Likewise for Tokyo.) While you're there, stay at the IchiEnSou Guesthouse. Book ahead. Say hi to Mike and Yashi for me. Spend a night in nearby Nara if you have the time and you're into temples.

If you're in Osaka, go to the aquarium, it might be the best in the world, but don't go to Osaka unless you really love aquariums, because there's not much else there.

If you go to Hiroshima, make a day trip to the nearby island of Miyajima.
posted by Dasein at 7:52 PM on August 23, 2009

Kimi Ryokan is a great place to stay in Tokyo.
Rakuten Travel has some good prices for accommodation too.
posted by cwhitfcd at 7:59 PM on August 23, 2009

I just spent two weeks wandering around the Kansai region and have a few tips.

Never rent a car. Only take a taxi when you must. Take trains everywhere.

If you will be moving around a lot, the best way to save money is to buy a JR pass. Those passes allow free rides on any JR train (except the fastest express service on the Shinkansen.) Anytime, anywhere, as many times as you want. That includes local JR trains as well, which often offer a similar level of service as the municipal subway (and in small towns without a subway, JR trains are often the only trains.) It even includes busses and ferrys operated by JR.

If you are not moving around a lot, the JR pass might not be good value. However, there are still local train passes which will save you money.

As far as accommodation goes, there are a few ways to save. The first is to use booking sites like to find cheap hotels. Another way to save is to book your hotel as part of a package from JTB, which is the largest travel agency in Japan. You don't need to take guided tours or anything. For example, you can buy travel packages from JTB which include shinkansen tickets to your desitination plus a few nights in a hotel for the cost of the shinkansen tickets alone.

Unlike previous posters, I really liked Osaka and found it very conveniently located between Nara, Kyoto, and Kobe. Himeji is an easy day trip. Hiroshima is also an easy day trip.
posted by twblalock at 8:14 PM on August 23, 2009

7 day rail pass is currently Y28,300 . . . . r/t on the shinkansen to Kyoto is Y26,800 so it's pretty much a win if you use it just for that and incidental trips when it's valid.
posted by @troy at 8:50 PM on August 23, 2009

Kyoto is kind of cool, but it's not particularly beautiful.

I prefer Nara to Kyoto. Nara is slower-paced, nice to walk around, and, if you stay in one of the ryokans in the downtown area, quite romantic.

Nara was also the terminus of the Silk Road, and so there is some truly awesome ancient stuff to be seen there - it's is really like staring back in time.

I also prefer the Nara National Museum to the Kyoto National Museum.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:47 PM on August 23, 2009

I've lived in Kansai (near Osaka) for four years and I love it down here. For a tourist, Tokyo is a must, but I I recommend leaving after a few days. Tokyo is just too stressful, and it's not really Japan, it's Tokyo.

In Tokyo I highly recommend taking the Hato bus tours. My first trip here, before I could speak Japanese, I took a few of those tours around Tokyo and to Mt. Fuji and it worked out great. Having a guide for the first few days might ease you into the rest of the trip. I'm typically not a tour bus kind of person as I guess you might not be either. Hato bus can take you the the Ghibli Museum which is a must if you're a fan of the films.

For touring Kyoto, Nara, Osaka, Kobe I'd recommend staying in Osaka and taking day trips from there. That's what I do on the weekend and I can get just about anywhere in the Kansai area. There's tons of information on Kyoto online, so I'm not going to go into it. Fushimi Inari in Kyoto is a must (it's the place with the thousands of bright orange torii gates seen in many films). The Nara Park area with it's many temples, free roaming deer (watch out for your pockets) and the largest statue of Buddha in a building is worth a trip. If you have time, or the interest in Japanese archeology the Asuka area south of Nara is great.

Fushimi Inari (On my blog w/ Links):
Nara Park:
Food in Kyoto, and other Kyoto stff:

In Osaka there are many shopping districts and great parts of the city to explore, but if you want to see the heart of Oska you have to walk around Shinsekai. This area, and the area to the south (where Osaka's largest red light district is) might be the only place in Japan where you might have to watch out a bit, but It's also popular for foreign tourists who stay at the very basic and very cheap hotels. If you don't mind shared baths and Japanese style rooms 2,500 a night rooms can be had. In the area there's many kushi-katsu restaurants where they deep fry meat and veggies on skewers. There's also the large, very retro looking, Tsutenkaku tower.


Kanazawa is a great midsized city. Billed as a little Kyoto it's fun to explore and good if you want to get out of all the big cities. If you have the rail pass Kanazawa would be worth seeing. Also the great Japanese garden there, Kenrokuen, would be beautiful in the fall colors.

I think I've rambled on way too much already. But two more things you need to try are Eki-ben and Onsen/Sento.

Eki-ben are box lunches sold only in certain train stations that are made with local products or in the local style.
Here's some Eki-ben I took on a trip to Kanazawa and back:

Onsen/Sento are Japanese hot spring bathhouses. If you have tattoos you might find it hard to get into an Onsen, but most local sento (bathhouses) allow tattoos. Sento are also cheaper and often have natural spring water.
My onsen/sento blog:
This is another good blog more focused on the Tokyo area:

Have a great trip!
posted by sleepytako at 10:03 PM on August 23, 2009 [3 favorites]

Two weeks gives you plenty of time for Tokyo, since most of the best stuff about Tokyo is actually outside of Tokyo. You could do Ueno, Asakusa, and Akihabara in a day, forced-march style, or two days leisurely. Same with Harajuku, Meiji jingu, and Shibuya. Maybe the best thing, for my money, in Tokyo is Sengaku ji, which is the shrine that houses the Forty-seven Ronin.

Outside of Tokyo, Kamakura is fantastic, as is Nikko, and well worth doing in a two week trip.

Go west. You could spend two weeks in Kyoto. Since you probably shouldn't, the first go round, spend at least three-four days there. You can see the golden pavilion, Ryoanji, and my favorite, Daitoku-ji, which actually has dozens of rock gardens, in one day. The path of philosophy on the other side of town gets you to the silver pavilion, Eikan-do, and Nanzen-ji, all while walking along a pretty stream. There are several temples around Kiyomizu dera, which makes it worthwhile going. Make sure to head to A-Bar, in the downtown area of Kyoto (listed in Lonely Planet) for some good food and drink in a lovely Izakaya. There is also a fantastic izakaya in northern Kyoto owned by a hunter. He serves grilled boar, grilled miso paste, and, uh, fried grasshoppers.

If you do take the time, please go to Fushimi Inari-taisha, or where you'll take your best pictures. Behind the shrine is a small mountain/hill that contains a cemetary. The path to the cemetary takes you through thousands (literally) of torii gates.

With two weeks, you could probably spend five or six in Tokyo, three or four in Kyoto, a day or two in Osaka, and you could also get out to Hiroshima, both for the Peace Memorial as well as the famous world heritage temple nearby (the name escapes me, starts with an 'M").

Finally, if you're here on the 15th of November, that's Shichi-Go-San, or 7-5-3 day, where parents take their children of those specific ages to Shrines for blessings. You get to see adorable children dress up in kimono and hakama. It's adorable, and quite a thing at the main shrine in Kamakura, Tsurugaoka-Hachiman-gu, and a lot of the people there never seem to mind tourists taking pictures of their kids (from a distance, mind you). If you have any other questions, feel free to memail me.
posted by Ghidorah at 10:05 PM on August 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

D'oh. Yeah, Nara. I'd say Nara over Osaka, possibly over Hiroshima. If you can, go to Nara and Kamakura, check out their twin Hase-dera temples (the link has a link to the one in Kamakura). The two temples are linked by a pair of statues carved by the same artist. According to legend, the artist enshrined one in Nara, then set the other adrift at sea to find it's karmic resting point, which evidently turned out to be Kamakura. Both are amazing.
posted by Ghidorah at 10:11 PM on August 23, 2009

When in Tokyo, don't miss Shimokitazawa, a super cool neighborhood a few stops west of Shinjuku that is in danger of being zoned out of existence.

For accomodations, if you're looking for something a step up from a hostel or capsule hotel, look into business hotels. I always stay at the Hotel Villa Fontaine in Tokyo and Osaka, which is as cheap as 8000 yen/night for two people. The rooms are tiny, but clean and functional and include free breakfast. The Osaka hotel is especially well located, right off of the Shinsaibashi shopping street.

Also, if you're in any large Japanese city and see a store with a penguin mascot on the sign, you want to go to there. That's Don Quixote, which is the craziest, trippiest store on the planet, like Wal-Mart on acid. The one in Akihabara is especially odd, with all-singing-all-dancing cute girl shows on the top floor and an extensive collection of maid costumes, including ones for dogs.

Lots of Japan photos in my Flickr stream (linked in my profile) if you're looking for inspiration...
posted by Gortuk at 7:14 AM on August 24, 2009

Thanks for all the advice, everyone. I love it when it is contradictory: "Go to Osaka!" v. "Don't go to Osaka!" ;-)

I will parse all this, come up w/ a route and submit it for any revisions.

A side question: my traveling companion is black. We've been hearing "get ready for alot of looks!" Can any of you speak towards that? I want to mentally prepare him...
posted by cgs at 12:29 PM on August 24, 2009

When I was there as a tourist I probably saw about 5 black people the entire time I was there (2 weeks). Your companion will stand out. All non-asians get noticed, and black people get noticed the most. But I don't think your companion will experience any racism, it seems to be mostly curiosity. People will stare.
posted by twblalock at 8:58 PM on August 24, 2009

Can any of you speak towards that? I want to mentally prepare him...

The Japanese are generally racists but they're willing to withhold judgment for individuals.

If anything all foreigners fall into the same category as black people so in that regard he might find two weeks in Japan educational. I know I did, seeing apartment ads for "no prostitutes or foreigners".

From what I gather the Roppongi adult entertainment district has been overrun with push Africans, which are giving black people something of a collective black eye, but that's not really common zeitgeist yet.

The Japanese value politeness and considerateness, so if you can do that you're cool with them as guests in their country.
posted by @troy at 9:04 PM on August 24, 2009

The Japanese are generally racists but they're willing to withhold judgment for individuals.

Wouldn't it be more accurate to say that racism in Japan is not hidden like it is in the US?

For the record, my wife, her family, our friends, our landlord, my employer and coworkers, the staff at the restaurants and bars I went, my son's preschool teacher and the policeman that pulled me over for speeding are or were NOT racists.

Like anywhere else there are some idiots in Japan. As well, Japan has no anti-discrimination legislation.

The comedians lampooning in blackface on television is particularly grating, though.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:15 PM on August 26, 2009

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